For the past week or so, reviews/reactions of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune have been coming from its premiere in Venice and the word is… quite good! Whether or not that will translate into box office gold is something we won’t know for another month, but based on this early word, I am guessing Villeneuve and his cast are feeling more optimistic than say, David Lynch and HIS cast were in the weeks leading up to the release of their 1984 adaptation, which was delayed not due to a pandemic (Villeneuve’s Dune was originally scheduled for 2020) but production issues that forced it out of its planned summer date and into December of that year. And early word was… not kind, to put it mildly.
But it’s not the fairest comparison, because unlike Lynch, Villeneuve isn’t trying to cram Frank Herbert’s dense novel into one film – his is about twenty minutes longer but only covers half as many pages, a luxury Lynch wasn’t offered. The new film will allow audiences to get soaked into Herbert’s vast galaxy without having to race through the story, meaning it will likely be easier for them to follow on top of it. While extended versions exist if you poke around, the version of the 1984 film that had to go out in theaters was 137 minutes – a runtime dictated by producer Dino De Laurentiis from the start as that was proven to be the maximum length a movie could be without having to lose a showing each day.
That’s one of the many anecdotes you’ll hear if you dig through Arrow’s deluxe special edition of Lynch’s film, which sadly does not include the longer cut but does offer deleted scenes (introduced by producer Raffaella De Laurentiis) along with two commentaries, one of which (by Mike White of the Projection Booth podcast) uses Herbert’s novel (which the film is mostly faithful to), older drafts, and that deleted material to fill in story gaps and character motivations when they’re – to put it gently – a bit muddled. The other track, by historian Paul M. Sammon, gets into some of the nitty gritty of the production itself, as he was on set for most of it and was witness to some of the head-butting between the studio and the creative team.
It’s the best kind of special edition, where you have hours of material that not only explain how a movie went astray, but help you appreciate the film itself even more than you already do. I admit I didn’t think much of the film when I saw it for the first time over a decade ago (after years and years of hearing about what a “disaster” it was), but watching again (on Arrow’s gorgeous 4K UHD transfer, I should note) I started warming to it, and by the time I finished going through the extras I had upgraded myself to legitimate fan. Do I understand all of the film? No, but at the same time, it’s not nearly as hard to follow as some might have you believe; it’s not even the most impenetrable David Lynch film in my opinion. He had to make compromises with a studio and tell the story of a 500 page book in 137 minutes – what’s Inland Empire‘s excuse for being harder to follow when it’s 40 minutes longer and telling a story he came up with himself?
One of the most eye-opening features is also one of the few that’s not on the main disc with the film (apart from the new commentaries, the bonus features on the first disc were produced for older releases; the second disc is mostly all new material). “Beyond Imagination: Merchandising Dune” is presented by Brian Stillman (a producer on The Toys That Made Us) and, in some ways more than the commentaries or recollections of people involved, helps explain why Dune didn’t work for audiences. It’s no secret that Universal wanted their own Star Wars, and having an established sci-fi/fantasy world like Herbert’s (who wrote several Dune sequels) seemed to be a great way to play catchup to George Lucas and his creatures. But as Stillman points out, there is little “fat” in the Dune universe the way Star Wars did, as there weren’t any mysterious Darth Vader-esque characters whose faces were shrouded in mystery, no Mos Eisley Cantina type scenes with all sorts of creatures with untold stories of their own, etc.
Additionally, the kinds of merchandise Universal commissioned were so laughably ill-fitting that it almost seems like they were catering to ironic audiences that would come along about twenty years later. The action figures are one thing (I’ve seen enough vintage Star Wars, G.I. Joe, etc. to know that even back then there were “keep them in the box” type collectors) but bedsheets and coloring books? A “when you hear the chime turn the page” read-along storybook? These are aimed directly at children of around 5 years old, and I for one can’t even imagine a child that young trying to process a film that includes, among other icky moments, a victim being bled to death by a leering, handsy, pus-faced overlord. They would have definitely soiled Kyle Maclachlan’s young face on those bedsheets that night, that’s for sure.
It was while watching this piece that the real issue with Dune really clicked for me: no one apparently ever agreed what kind of movie they were making before dropping 40 million (over $100m in today’s dollars) to do it. Even this early in his career, I highly doubt making a movie that could help sell toys has ever once floated through David Lynch’s mind, and it’s just as likely that the execs who signed off on coloring books were thinking about the themes of the movie beyond “Good guy tries to stop bad guy.” And that seems to be an issue the new film didn’t have to deal with; from the decision to take their time and only cover the first half of the book (everything up until Paul meets the Fremen and becomes “Muad’Dib”, from what I understand) to hiring an intelligent and terrific filmmaker (one who already lost them some money on a sci-fi property, namely Blade Runner 2049) instead of some journeyman hack, it seems Warner Brothers has learned from Universal’s mistakes and are doing it right this time around. Hell, even the obligatory action figures are the more expensive kinds aimed at collectors, nothing for the young’ns.
But it’s likely also to be slightly “safer” and palatable to a mainstream audience, which isn’t a bad thing, but may help folks appreciate Lynch’s take even more over time. Let’s face it: Herbert’s novel is never going to be an easy sell at the box office unless it’s completely overhauled; it’s just too “out there” and requires full concentration (the book even has a lengthy glossary of its terms to help; as someone on Twitter recently noted: “Dune isn’t fun. Dune is WORK.”), and thus anyone who tries is deserving of our respect. And I for one would like to thank Arrow for this release, as it not only got me more interested in seeing the new one, but gave me newfound appreciation for the older one that I had needlessly written off.